Most people have a preference for a particular way in which to worship, and that’s fine.
But problems arise when we begin to worship the tradition to which we belong, rather than the God to whom the tradition should point. Some Christians aren’t really happy unless they’re immersed in clouds of incense, bowls of holy water and a Latin Mass.
And on the other hand some are unhappy unless they’re continually singing choruses, swaying with their arms in the air, speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, and asking you if you’ve been “saved.”
Well, my preference is for traditional Catholic simplicity, but that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy sharing worship with my more flamboyant Catholic brethren. And although I think many Protestant liturgical traditions are very dull and have denied themselves access to much joy and grace, I respect the integrity behind their traditions.
However, I do have a problem with any tradition which defines itself by excluding others. I do have a problem with Christians who tell you that they have all of the answers. With Christians who aren’t prepared to tolerate any way of worship which is different from their own. With Christians who show by their intolerance and opposition that, actually, they don’t really understand what it means to love one another. With Christians whose behaviour shows that they’ve stepped outside of the Gospel.
And I think this is what Jesus was saying in the reading which we heard just now. Jesus wasn’t opposed to the Temple traditions of his time. He was opposed to the hypocrisy which was a part and parcel of the lives of many of the outwardly religious people with whom he had to do.
He was critical of people who followed the Temple traditions, the ceremonial regulations and the food laws, to the letter , and who then treated their neighbor as though they were something which they’d just stepped in.
You see, it doesn’t matter how tightly we’re attached to a particular tradition. It doesn’t matter how clean our ritual worship of God is, within whichever tradition to which we belong. It will be made dirty when we are made unclean by the way in which we live our lives.
Jesus had some very severe criticism for some of the religious leaders of his day and we’ve heard a bit of it just now. I think the Pharisees probably got a worse press than they deserved, because some of them undoubtedly cared for their people. But I guess many of them went through a kind of charade, with an outward show of religiosity which covered up a selfish and proud inner nature .
I expect most of us know people like this; but, you know perhaps it’s more important for us to look at our own behavior before we get judgmental. We need to ask ourselves questions like:
What is there in our religion that is pharisaic?
Are we seriously trying to get nearer to Christ, or are we like those Pharisees who made strenuous efforts to win people to their own religious views without bringing them any nearer to God?
Do our efforts to win people really help them to open their lives to God or just draw them into our own habits and prejudices?
Do we have a formal outward appearance of piety which hides flaws in our lives?
The passage which we heard just now tells us that theft, murder, adultery, greed, sexual immorality, jealousy, envy and deceit, will make our clean rituals dirty. And these are the things which we should attend to before we fill up the thurible or refuse to share worship with someone, because we differ on a fine theological point.
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God who is Father of all. And yet I know Baptists who don’t have much to do with Roman Catholics; I know Roman Catholics who don’t have much to do with Anglicans and I know many Anglicans who don’t have much to do with anybody, including each other!
Do you really think that people who don’t belong to any church tradition can look at us and say “see how those Christians love each other”?
Isn’t it time we stopped our silliness and took God seriously.
The God who said, through Jesus “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. The God who loves us all so much that he gave us his only begotten Son, so that in him we might live for ever?